Have the media “fitted up” notorious gangster Abe Saffron over the Luna Park fire? That is not a sentence one ever expects to type but the evidence of Saffron’s involvement – indeed the evidence that the fire was the result of organised arson – is unconvincing. The ABC, however, is in no doubt and has already handed down its verdict: The Ghost Train fire at Luna Park, on Saturday night, June 10, 1979, was started by a group of bikies at the instigation of Saffron and covered up by corrupt coppers and politicians. This was the conclusion of an ABC-TV three-part program, “Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire,” broadcast in March.
This was not the first time Saffron has been fingered for the fire by the media. More than a decade ago, The Sydney Morning Herald (26 May 2007) reported an uncorroborated allegation by a Saffron niece, Anne Buckingham, that her uncle was behind the fire, although she also claimed no-one was meant to die. At the time Buckingham was preparing to challenge Saffron’s will, having been unhappy with her share. This should have been a warning to The Herald. A person who believes her uncle is a mass murderer but still holds out her hand for more of his ill-gotten gains should not be considered a trustworthy source. It has been reported (ABC News Online 29 March 2021) that Buckingham subsequently retracted her claim but the Herald apparently has evidence she made the accusation. Perhaps The Herald should now add an online rider to its earlier report.
Buckingham’s claims were also disputed by Saffron’s son, Alan, now dead, who was not normally a defender of his father’s reputation. Alan Saffron, another dissatisfied with his father’s will, told the Herald (May 27, 2007): “It was a straight-out accident. There was no suggestion that anyone had anything to do with the fire.”
Given the Herald’s initial report must now be considered doubtful, what evidence did the ABC tender to convict Saffron? Certainly not the sort of evidence which, if produced at a committal hearing, would justify a magistrate ordering ‘Mr Sin’ to stand trial for arson and murder.
The actual arsonists, according to the ABC, were bikies – their number varies during the program – who were seen by multiple witnesses on the night of the fire. To reach the conclusion that the bikies were contracted to light the fire, however, the program had to rely selectively on the words of the only witness who claimed to have overhead the bikies talking about the fire. This witness said he heard one bikie say: “I spread the kerosene out and I lit it with a match.” The same witness also said he then heard another bikie say: “You shouldn’t have done that,” while a third bikie said, “Come on, let’s split”.
“You shouldn’t have done that”. Really? This is an odd statement by a member of a gang of bikies who had been commissioned to start the fire. If the bikies, as a group, had been involved in setting the fire would they have needed one of their number to tell them they needed to vacate the scene?
The ABC program relies completely on the first bikie’s comment and ignores completely the second and the third. If this witness is to be believed – his evidence is uncorroborated – this suggests the fire was probably a mindless act of arson, of the sort we see every bushfire season. Even if we assume the ABC is correct in identifying the bikies as the culprits, what evidence was produced to link the bikies to Saffron? The only direct evidence was an interview with an unnamed former bikie, who did not claim to have been one of those involved, who declined to be identified, would not be filmed and whose voice appears to have been deliberately distorted. At no point in the interview did this person directly accuse Saffron.
When asked if Saffron was behind the fire, the anonymous bikie replied: “Yeah, pretty close to the mark.” Further asked: “Do you reckon he got away with it? Abe Saffron?” he replied: “Well he ran the show”. Questioned further the reply was: “Everyone slung each other a quid and the world was their oyster and they could do what they liked.” This is not “evidence” that would be considered much use in a committal hearing. Nor is it likely to put the shy bikie in line for the $1 million reward the NSW Government has now offered for information.
The only other “evidence” produced was circumstantial. Around this time Saffron was investigated by police, and later by the National Crime Authority, for a series of arson fires in buildings around Kings Cross and Oxford Street. Saffron was never charged. These building fires, however, were professionally lit and nobody lost their lives. This is not surprising since the modus operandi of a professional arsonist is to light fires in the dead of night when a building is unoccupied. If Saffron was the mastermind of those building fires, why would he not have ensured there was no loss of life at Luna Park by using the same professional arsonist? Why engage three bikies who, judging from their supposed comments, were amateurs in the arson game?
The motive for the building fires was, presumably, an insurance payout. Saffron had no such motive at Luna Park since he was not the lessee. According to the program, Saffron wanted the site for commercial development purposes and, although this is not spelled out, we are meant to assume that he organised the fire to dislodge the existing lessee of Luna Park.
The lease for Luna Park had expired long before the fire, however, and the then-current lease holder was on “holdover” while negotiations continued on a new lease. Even if the lessor (the NSW Government) and the lessee (Luna Park NSW Pty Ltd) failed to reach agreement, which proved to be the case, tenders for a new lease would be for the operation of an amusement park. Commercial development of the site – which had already been rejected by the Askin Government — was not permitted under the lease.
This is where former NSW premier Neville Wran entered the story the ABC was spinning. According to the program, Wran intervened in the tender process which began after the fire to “make sure the lease swung over to Saffron.” In making this claim, however, the ABC ignored the fact that a Saffron-linked vehicle did not tender for the lease when tenders opened after the fire. The new thirty-year lease, when it was finally awarded after a second round of tenders, was solely for the operation of an amusement park.
The ABC also ignored the fact that all relevant decisions on the tendering process were made by Cabinet or by a Cabinet committee, not by Wran. The recommendation to award the lease to Harbourside Amusement Park Pty Ltd, the supposed Saffron company, was made by a special interdepartmental committee comprising six very senior public servants.
The only member of this special committee still alive is the respected former NSW Government Architect, Andrew Andersons, who made no allegation of political interference when interviewed on the program.
Andersons has subsequently told The Australian (paywalled) that he was the subject of selective editing by the ABC. “The tender process was totally above board,” he said. “Nobody influenced the panel process – certainly I was not told by anybody to do anything. The public servants on the panel were all very experienced and professional.”
The ABC also neglected to tell viewers that a special investigation by the (then) NSW Corporate Affairs Commission into the ownership of Harbourside was ordered by Wran himself. Following allegations in the NSW Parliament, Wran wrote to his attorney general, Terry Sheahan, requesting the NSW Corporate Affairs Commission “examine the affairs of Harbourside with a view to establishing one way or another whether Abraham Saffron has links to Luna Park and if so, the nature and extent of the links.” This is very strange behaviour by a premier who, according to the ABC, was in cahoots with Saffron.
The Corporate Affairs Commission conducted a very thorough investigation over 17 months and included all companies involved in the ownership structure of Harbourside. Twenty-three witnesses, including Saffron, were examined on oath and another 11 witnesses were interviewed. A National Crime Authority official was included in the investigation team.
The Commission concluded at the end of this lengthy inquiry: “There is no evidence that suggests that Abraham Gilbert Saffron has any actual or beneficial ownership in Harbourside.” So much for the ABC’s claim that Wran had intervened to “make sure the lease swung over to Saffron.”
Even though the evidence that Saffron was behind the fire is slender at best, the ABC is convinced there was a cover-up of Saffron’s involvement which went “right to the top”.
The presenter’s exact words were:
“Essentially the allegation is that the reason why [the investigation] didn’t go any further was because of corruption further up. There are a lot of powerful people in powerful places protecting Abe. So it went right to the top we are told.”
In the context of the program this statement can only mean that the ABC is now accusing Wran of also being involved in covering up a mass murder. In three episodes the program produced no evidence at all that Wran was involved in a cover-up. Not a single person interviewed on the program made such an accusation; nor was any other evidence, documentary or otherwise, produced to justify this claim. This statement was simply made up by the presenter and allowed to go to air by those supervising the program.
The ABC has already begun distancing itself from this claim. Managing Director David Anderson told the Senate Estimates hearing on May 26: “This program in no way suggested that Neville Wran had any involvement in or knowledge of the fire at Luna Park”. Further, “it did not say that Wran was involved in a cover-up of the cause of the fire.” Anderson can only make this claim by ignoring the words of the presenter cited above. If the ABC does not believe Wran was involved in a cover-up it should correct the record by removing this comment from the program on ABC iview.
The ABC placed great emphasis on the presence at the scene of several allegedly bent coppers, including the detective in charge, Inspector Doug Knight. But the program glossed over the fact that this fire, and the others supposedly attributed to Saffron, were later investigated by the National Crime Authority. The NCA, with far greater investigative expertise and resources than the ABC, found: “There is no evidence that the inadequacy of the police investigation [at Luna Park] was due to dishonesty or corruption.”
The ABC did not establish that a crime of organised arson occurred that night at Luna Park. Without such a crime there can be no cover-up. The uncorroborated evidence of arson it produced points in the direction of a senseless act by one person. No convincing evidence was produced to undermine the conclusion of the National Crime Authority that it could find no evidence of dishonesty or corruption in the police investigation.
The families of the victims have been cruelly misled by the ABC. They have been fed a story that has very little substantiation and lacks credibility. If a new inquiry is held into the Luna Park fire, it will have been called not because the ABC has uncovered compelling new evidence but because it has falsely led the families to believe they now know the truth about the deaths of their loved ones.
Milton Cockburn is a former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked on Neville Wran’s staff for four years, including during the period that witnessed the Luna Park fire and its aftermath